Insurers deceive public, former insider says

By Ashton Leber
Social Media Editor

A New York Times best-selling author, renowned journalist and health insurance insider visited the College to discuss the past and future of health care and its affects on March 21.

“How many of you have ever said the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, was a government takeover of health care?” Wendell Potter asked a crowd of students and faculty in room 212 of the Education Building.

Potter revealed that story was a fabrication by insurance companies.

“Tens of millions believed it, and millions of us still do,” Potter said. “Well, guess what? It was nowhere close to the truth. It was, and still is, fake news. And I was partly responsible for spreading it.”

Upon returning to his journalism career, Potter served as vice president of corporate communications for a leading health insurance group, Cigna. There, he helped create and implement Cigna’s many public relations campaigns that were designed to “make you think, act and vote in ways the (insurance companies) wanted you to.” It all started 10 years ago on the 16th floor of One Liberty Place in Philadelphia, where Potter had a secret meeting with his former employer, Cigna, and several other top PR executives from health insurance companies.

Ten days before the meeting, director Michael Moore premiered his documentary “Sicko” in France, which exposed how poorly the U.S. health care system fared compared to other countries.

“‘Sicko’ was not about the growing number of uninsured Americans, but was about people who had insurance and still couldn’t afford to get the care they needed,” Potter said.

The secret meeting was arranged because Americans’ attitudes toward health care were shifting negatively.

Pollster Bill McInturff presented at the meeting a recent national poll he conducted providing evidence that Americans doubted private insurance companies.

“The poll showed that the government should do more to solve the many problems that plagued the American health care system,” Potter said.

Mike Tuffin of America’s Health Insurance Plan and Robert Schooling of the Washington PR firm APCO Worldwide flew to Philadelphia to “discredit (‘Sicko’) and the movie maker,” Potter said.

Potter unveils the myths perpetuated by American health care companies. (Aaron Wilson-Watson / Staff Photographer)

Potter said APCO was a master of deception, and it discussed in a 1995 pamphlet “how the firm helped corporations advance their goals by influencing lawmakers, drafting legislation, regulations and creating business correlations tailored to specific issues.”

AHIP and APCO created an impressive PR strategy that would shift the media’s focus away from Moore and position the insurance companies as part of the solution rather than the problem, according to Potter.

The front group created by APCO would be called “Health Care America” and would lead the effort in changing American minds after the release of “Sicko” in the U.S.

The money for Health Care America came from the pockets of Americans paying their insurance premiums. Due to the immense outcome of this strategic campaign, Moore’s film did not do as well as anticipated, according to Potter.

“Not a single reporter had done enough investigative work to find out that the insurance industry was behind it all. We fooled everybody,” Potter said.

But what does this have to do with today? Everything, according to Potter.

Using a similar campaign strategy used against “Sicko,” health care insurance groups would once again influence the debate of the Affordable Care Act — now known as Obamacare.

The companies denounced the health care reform legislation, promoting it as a “government takeover of health care,” he said.

Potter said millions of people believed it, but, in fact, Obamacare “solidified the role private insurance companies play in our health care system.”

According to Potter, Obamacare forced insurance companies to become more consumer focused.

“The industry has really thrived over the past eight years,” Potter said. “The share price of the biggest insurance company, UnitedHealthcare, has increased a stunning 1,000 percent since the early days of the Obama administration.”

Compared to the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies spent “$275 million to lobby Congress and the White House in 2009.”

Potter said that according to the Center of Responsive Politics, it’s the most money spent on lobbying in a single year. Compared to other countries, American’s pay more for prescription medications.

Millions of people to this day still believe that Obamacare is a government takeover, but it has, instead, made a positive difference in the lives of the American people, according to Potter.

The new administration is repealing and replacing Obamacare for what is now introduced as the American Health Care Act. Many groups, including the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and AARP, have come out against the new health care system, Potter said.

Although these industries are being overt, the insurance companies are silent.

Potter believed that was because they were working behind the scenes to get the new health care bill passed, which would allow them to make more money.

Before Obamacare was passed, Potter said many insurance companies sold “junk” insurance with spotty coverage “because it was very profitable and they would like to be able to sell it again. With the current reform debate in Washington, insurance companies smell an opportunity to get rid of those pesky new rules.”

If the new bill was passed, insurance companies would be able to sell sky-high policies with skimpy benefits, according to Potter.

“Even if the American health care act passes the house this week, the chances of it getting through the Senate in its current configuration are pretty slim,” Potter said.

This is because many people on both sides of the aisle believe it would not benefit low- and middle-class families.

Potter’s prediction never had a chance to come to fruition. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pulled the bill before it had a chance to pass in the House of Representatives on Saturday, March 25, according to CNN.

Potter said there isn’t a reason to expect much progress at the moment. The only way he can foresee progress is if the American people become “better informed and well-engaged citizens,” which he hopes can be achieved through the launch of his new site, Tarbell.org.

Named after investigative journalist Ida Tarbell, Potter hopes to point out to solutions in changing the way we perceive health care.

“Despite everything I said today, I am hopeful we can create the world’s best health care system,” Potter said.

His latest book, “Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What we can do About it,” emphasizes how Americans can take a stand.

“We need to work together to be sure it’s disrupted in our favor and not just Wall Street’s,” Potter said. 

Potter believes coming together is the key to reforming America’s health care system.

“I’m convinced that when we come together and work across party lines — which can happen and is happening in places around the country — we can bring costs under control,” Potter said. “We can make certain that every one of us has access to quality care we can afford.”

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